CLARENCE, New York (AP) – A commuter plane “basically dove” into a house while coming in for a landing, sparking a fiery explosion that killed all 48 people on board and one person on the ground, an emergency official said Friday.
It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the U.S. in 2 1/2 years.
Witnesses heard the twin turboprop aircraft sputtering before it went down in light snow and fog around 10:20 p.m. Thursday (0320 GMT Friday). Flames silhouetted the shattered home after Continental Connection Flight 3407 plummeted into it around about five miles (eight kilometers) from Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
“The whole sky was lit up orange,” said Bob Dworak, who lives less than a mile from the crash site. “All the sudden, there was a big bang, and the house shook.” The 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft, operated by Colgan Air, was flying from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and preparing to land at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said there is “no indication of any security related event” that brought the plane down. Six hours after the crash, the task of retrieving remains had not yet begun.
“It’s still a hot scene,” Clarence emergency control director Dave Bissonette said. “The fuselage lies right on the footprint of the house.”
Prior to the crash, the voice of a female pilot on Continental Flight 3407 could be heard communicating with air traffic controllers, according to a recording of the Buffalo air traffic control’s radio messages shortly before the crash captured by the Web site www.liveatc.net. Neither the controller nor the pilot showed any concerns that anything is out of the ordinary as the airplane is asked to fly at 2,300 feet (700 meters.)
A minute later, the controller tries to contact the plane but hears no response. After a pause, he tries to contact the plane again.
Eventually he tells an unidentified listener to contact authorities on the ground in the Clarence area. “You need to find if anything is on the ground,” the controller says. “All I can tell you is the aircraft is over the marker (landing beacon), and we’re not talking to them now.”
After the crash, at least two pilots are heard saying they have been picking up ice on their wings. “We’ve been getting ice since 20 miles south of the airport,” one says.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of crash investigators to Buffalo early Friday. A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, said there was no indication terrorism was involved.
“All indications are that this was an air-safety event,” said spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.
While residents of the neighborhood where the plane went down were used to planes rumbling overhead, witnesses said this one sounded louder than usual, sputtered and made some odd noises.
After hearing the crash, Dworak drove over to take a look, and “all we were seeing was 50 to 100 foot flames and a pile of rubble on the ground. It looked like the house just got destroyed the instant it got hit.”
Witness Tony Tatro said he saw the plane flying low and knew it was in trouble. “It was not spiraling at all. The left wing was a little low,” he told WGRZ-TV. One person in the home was killed, and two others inside were able to escape with minor injuires. Twelve homes were evacuated near the crash site. The tail or part of a wing was visible through flames and thick smoke that engulfed the scene.
Erie County Executive Chris Collins said the plane was carrying 5,000 pounds (2,270 kilograms) of fuel and apparently exploded on impact.
Firefighters got as close to the plane as they could, he said. “They were shouting out to see if there were any survivors on the plane. Truly a very heroic effort, but there were no survivors.”
It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner took off from a Lexington, Kentucky, runway that was too short.
Houston-based Continental Airlines issued a statement saying that preliminary information showed the plane carried 44 passengers and a crew of four.
About 30 relatives and others who arrived at the airport in the overnight hours were escorted into a private area and then taken by bus to a senior citizens center in the neighboring town of Cheektowaga, where counselors and representatives from Continental waited to help.
“At this time, the full resources of Colgan Air’s accident response team are being mobilized and will be devoted to cooperating with all authorities responding to the accident and to contacting family members and providing assistance to them,” the statement said.
“Continental extends its deepest sympathy to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this accident,” said Larry Kellner, chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines, in a later statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the family members and loved ones of those involved in the flight 3407 tragedy.”
Manassas, Virginia-based Colgan Air said in a statement that airline personnel and local authorities were working to confirm the number of people on board and their identities.
As family members of the victims trickled in to the airport in the overnight hours, they were escorted by airport personnel to a private area. Chris Kausner, believing his sister was on the plane, rushed to a hastily established command center after calling his vacationing mother in Florida to break the news.
“To tell you the truth, I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I’ve never heard before. So not good, not good,” he told reporters. Clarence is a growing eastern suburb of Buffalo, largely residential but with rural stretches. The crash site is a street of older, single-family homes which apparently back up to wooded area. While the fire was contained, smoke still billowed over the scene about four hours later. Houses in the neighborhood are only about 20-25 feet (7-8 meters) apart. “The fact that the damage is limited to the one residence is really amazing,” said state police spokeswoman Rebecca Gibbons.
The crash came less than a month after a US Airways pilot guided his crippled plane to a landing in the Hudson River off Manhattan, saving the lives of all 155 people aboard. Birds had apparently disabled both its engines. On Dec. 20, a Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at the Denver airport, injuring 38 people.